The problem is the alarms are very often false. Former U.S. national security official Richard A. Clarke, who detailed numerous examples of modern-day Cassandras in his 2017 book “Warnings,” concludes that most of these crusaders were ignored because “many prophets are wrong, giving the others a bad reputation.” The paranoid style of modern American politics has created an environment where a stream of false and frenzied warnings has numbed voters to the dangers of coming political threats.
George H.W. Bush was painted as a racist president who was a drug-runner while in the CIA; Bill Clinton was accused of being a murderer by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.; the smearing of George W. Bush as a fascist was so widespread that I could barely walk a block through my Upper West Side neighborhood in New York without seeing the 43rd president’s image superimposed on Adolf Hitler’s body.
But wait. There’s more.
Glenn Beck accused the next president, Barack Obama, of being a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for White people.” And I spent eight years being mocked by relatives for pushing back on claims that Obama was a Muslim who wanted to replace the U.S. Constitution with sharia law.
Forty years of dire predictions from both sides played to Donald Trump’s benefit as he assumed the presidency. The day after Trump’s 2016 election victory, Obama dismissed “the sky is falling” prognostications and declared that he and Trump had shared goals.
“We all want what’s best for this country,” he said of his successor.
Obama’s presumption of good faith was shared by many prominent Washington figures, in part, because they had little choice but to hope for the best, even if they had feared Trump’s election. Plenty of them were willing to help, for the good of the country.
Trump quickly proved himself allergic to wise counsel. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other advisers who tried to present the 45th president with objective facts were soon replaced by apparatchiks who mindlessly played to Trump’s worst instincts. As Hannah Arendt observed in her landmark 1951 work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the most talented are pushed aside by autocrats and “invariably” replaced “with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
Within a month of walking into the White House, Trump questioned the federal judiciary’s legitimacy, used Joseph Stalin’s “enemy of the people” slur to attack the free press and directed top aides to declare to national audiences that the powers of the president “will not be questioned.”
Masha Gessen observed in “Surviving Autocracy” that Americans have always granted incoming presidents a presumption of good faith because, until Trump, “no political actor sought to destroy American government and political systems.” If that conclusion seems as overwrought as the claims cited above against Obama, Bush and Clinton, consider what Trump has offered up publicly: that Article II of the Constitution gives him unlimited power; that he trusts Vladimir Putin’s word more than that of the U.S. intelligence community; that the transcript of his call to a foreign leader was “perfect” even though it proved he was blackmailing a foreign country to dig up dirt on his political rival; and, of course, that U.S. military leaders were “losers” and “pussies.”
Americans should heed poet Maya Angelou’s warning that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them the first time. Over the past four years, Trump has told the world that he loathes constitutional limits and will do anything to maintain power — whether that means accepting political help from foreign countries or attacking America’s democratic process as “rigged.”
We know the storm is coming. The question is whether we will be prepared for America’s next cataclysmic event.